Matt Welch | Spending Denialists and the Fiscal Illusion

Several weeks before the slow-motion “fiscal cliff” negotiation ended in a giveaway-rich, tax-hiking, 154-page spending bill that senators had all of six minutes to glance at before approving by an 89-8 vote in the wee hours of January 1, President Barack Obama reportedly told House Speaker John Boehner flat out: “We don’t have a spending problem.”

Boehner, in relaying the quote to The Wall Street Journal three days after the House of Representatives grudgingly ratified the Senate plan, expressed astonishment at the president’s words. But he shouldn’t have. Spending denialism—of the literal sort—has become a core progressive value in the age of Obama.

“Spending isn’t the problem,” Steve Benen wrote at Rachel Maddow’s blog in December. “We don’t have a spending problem. We have an aging problem,” seconded Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum in January. “We don’t have a spending problem, we have a military spending problem,” chimed in The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein.

Such confident consensus would be more convincing if not for the fact that federal spending rose from $1.77 trillion in fiscal year 2000 to $3.72 trillion in 2010. If spending growth had been pegged to the rates of inflation and population, Washington would still be doling out less than $3 trillion a year, and the fiscal conversation would be about surpluses, not debt ceilings.

These were the types of things Democrats used to care about, or at least pretend to care about, back when it was Republicans running up the national credit card. “We will maintain fiscal responsibility, so that we do not mortgage our children’s future on a mountain of debt,” the 2008 Democratic Party Platform promised. “What we have done is kicked this can down the road,” Obama told The Washington Post just before taking office. “We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further.”

That was then. Now we live in a world where the Senate Finance Committee hasn’t passed a budget since April 2009, preferring instead to legislate via panicky, lobbyist-crafted spending resolutions like the fiscal cliff avoidance package. Those long-term entitlement reforms that Obama promised to stop kicking down the road? Despite triggering the whole fiscal-cliff negotiations in the first place—recall that the January 1“sequester” deal was only a backup plan in case bipartisan negotiators failed to come up with a strategy to cope with Baby Boomer entitlements—Social Security and Medicare escaped the new agreement unscathed.


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